The Thief of Baghdad (1924)

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Director: Raul Walsh. United Artists.

SILENT

 

Producer: Douglas Fairbanks. Writer: Elton Thomas, Lotta Woods. Camera: Arthur Edeson. Music: Gaylord Carter. Sets: William Cameron Menzies. Special Effects: Hampton Del Ruth.

Douglas Fairbanks, Snitz Edwards, Charles Belcher, Julanne Johnston, Sojin, Anna May Wong, Brandon Hurst, Tote Du Crow, Noble Johnson.

SYNOPSIS

Ahmed (Fairbanks) is the Prince of all Thieves in ancient Arabia, a young man who “takes what he wants” when he wants it. That is until he meets the ravishing Princess (Johnston) and decides to abandon his career, temporarily at least, in order to woo her. But he has first to complete many dangerous tasks to win her hand, as an evil Mongol Prince (Sojin) is after her too.

REVIEW

The great granddaddy of all Arabian Nights fantasy films is still thrilling, fun, rousing entertainment nearly 100 years after its premiere.

Early cinema swashbuckler Fairbanks, the dash good-looking, athletic movie legend, husband of Mary Pickford, was at the peak of his Hollywood powers so was obvious casting in the role of the Prince of Middle Eastern kleptomaniacs, a one man crime wave for whom the ASBO couldn’t have been invented quickly enough. This is his most fondly remembered film in a career that saw him play  Robin Hood and The Man in the Iron Mask and Zorro. As an example of the ‘Star System’ that operated in Hollywood at this time (where movie roles were moulded around the personality, or at least their public personality, of the star who was playing them), so the film is tailor made for Doug’s brand of bouncy gymnastic gyrations and boyish, carefree good larks.

If Johnston’s insipid turn as the Princess ultimately proves irritating, this was probably more because of the convention for female leads in Hollywood action films of the silent era to swoon and pale into insignificance next to their macho co-star. At least we have a smashing, exotic support cast: Wong excels as the Johnston’s duplicitous Mongol maid and the mysteriously named Sijon is a creepy villain in the Nosferatu vein.

Its influence also stretches across the decades, due in most part to Menzies’ astonishing Baghdad design, a unique ‘Arabopolis’ with towering minarets, art deco furnishings and a grandly synthetic beauty (the undulating fabric that makes up the Midnight Sea prefigures a similar design used in Fellini’s Casanova). Anyone watching Disney’s vulgar, noisy version of Aladdin with gobby Robin Williams as Genie will also see the similarities. Menzies would go on to design many other famous films and this was an early indicator of his extravagant style.

Made back in the day, long before CGI and computers, some of the ingenious special effects have managed to withstand the test of time. The flying carpet is still humorous and convincing and the trick photography in the Magic Crystal is impressive. Unfortunately, the winged horse and underwater sections (Doug’s walk toward the Mermaids’ Lair stinks) are rather less so and invoke some hilarity.

Despite this and the rather hefty running time (2 and a half hours no less), director Walsh manages to inject enough pace and verve to provide a film that still casts a shimmering light down the cinematic timeline.

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